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A week of public hearings kicked off Monday at the Nova Hotel in Yellowknife to weigh the federal government’s $1 billion plan to clean up Giant Mine. 

The plan up for discussion is the culmination of over a decade’s worth of work and aims to secure a 20-year water licence, and a five-year land-use permit for clean-up. An approval  from the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board could clear the way for licensing this year, and lead to the start of work by 2021 at the latest. 

The plan’s goals for the site include:

  • Building a water treatment plan
  • Cleaning up contaminated soil and sediments 
  • Capping four tailing ponds
  • Stabilizing and closing the underground mine
  • Taking down over 100 buildings 
  • Building a landfill to store non-hazardous waste 

The plan also aims to freeze roughly 237,000 tonnes of arsenic dust underground.

There are other elements yet to be completed: a risk assessment to be done by February, and stress study on health that is slated for this year. 

As the remediation team fielded questions Monday and Tuesday, several parties flagged uncertainties surrounding final design plans. 

Natalie Plato, deputy director of the Giant Mine Remediation Project, says the plan requires certainty from the land and water board to work out finer details.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

These aren’t necessarily uncertainties, according to Natalie Plato, deputy director of the project, because the team is set upon its overall goals, despite not settling on finalized plans.

This includes details such as the thickness of tailings covers, or the extent the project can fill a pit, she said.

“We have certainty on what we want to do and that’s what we’re asking for approval (for),” Plato said.

As talks opened and the remediation team warned of potential costs between $15 and $20 million if the plan was delayed, the following hearings revealed simmering concerns over the project.  

In its presentation to the board on Monday, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation stated the remediation process has “not accommodated our Treaty and Aboriginal rights.”

Calling for a community benefits agreement and community monitoring of the site, the Yellowknives also argued the arsenic freeze-in-plan was not a permanent solution. 

“(YKDFN members are) watching. They’re pretty on keen on what’s been happening and why it’s taken so long,”  Dettah Chief Edward Sangris told reporters Monday.

Yellowknives Dene First Nations Chief discusses Giant Mine compensation at the Nova Hotel on Monday afternoon.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

“They don’t want to live in fear of living next door to something that’s really going to harm them,” he added later.

During public questions, YKDFN member Louise Bealieau, asked just that: Are the fish and berries around Dettah safe to eat?  She was assured they are. 

‘This is what we have’

Joanne Black of YKDFN asked how the remediation plan would comply with the standards set forth in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

In addition to the Yellowknives’ concerns they will be left out of environment monitoring, they also express fears about the storage of hazardous materials on Indigenous lands.

In response, project members said they will ship hazardous materials off-site, dispose of asbestos as regulated, and freeze the arsenic.

However, Black pointed out the options for addressing arsenic were already decided, namely that it would be left underground, potentially forever.

Plato said an environmental assessment approved the indefinite freezing, and that YKDFN signed the environmental agreement, and that the Yellowknives will be part of any further review of waste management.

Plato said there was research funding for alternatives, but the freezing was the best option currently on the table. 

“We sympathize that this is not the preferred choice, but this is what we have,” she said.

Board hearings don’t cover compensation, apology

The Yellowknives have called for compensation and an apology for the damage caused by the mine. However, this falls outside the board’s hearings mandate, the Yellowknives were told.  

Chief Sangris said he had faced this scenario before and that the Yellowknives would need compensation and apology from Ottawa, noting the government has already denied several claimants. 

Another Yellowknives member heard during public questions, Morris Henry Beaulieu, nonetheless called for compensation for the damage caused by Giant Mine.

Dozens of community members and local organizations appeared for the first days of hearings.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

“YKDFN should be one of the richest First Nations in the Northwest Territories,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to come here and beg for compensation.”

City says progress has stalled

The City of Yellowknife also raised a number of concerns, stating in a presentation slide that “progress and co-operation has stalled” with the remediation project.

Broadly, it took issue with the certainty around the project, the structure of its water licence and the site’s long term security.

While outside the immediate scope of the hearings, the city has also shared concerns of socio-economic benefits of the project flowing to community members. 

“The Project’s responses to the City’s outstanding concerns have mostly refused to acknowledge the validity of the concerns (leading to) a consequential absence of effort in addressing them,” the city’s presentation stated. 

“Rather than working to resolve the issue, the project’s effort has been in denying their applicability and value.”

Hearings will run until Friday.

 

 

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Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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